Olivia de Havilland is the subject of an interview published in the London Evening Standard about a week ago. The piece is a must-read. Discussed are de Havilland’s youth, her early years in Los Angeles, Errol Flynn, Gone with the Wind, the Academy Awards, and – tangentially – her relationship with sister Joan Fontaine.
“It is hard, very hard, to believe she is 93,” says interviewer Hermione Eyre. “Only the glorious vintage of her gossip gives it away. ‘I saw Norma Shearer dancing with [her Romeo and Juliet co-star] Leslie Howard and I thought, “I wonder what her husband [MGM former second-in-command Irving Thalberg] thinks about that…”‘ Sometimes she confides regret: ‘For two weeks after I lost out on that Oscar, I didn’t believe in God…’ and briefly, when I ask whether she might one day be reconciled with her sister, the actress Joan Fontaine, she shows the pain of an ongoing family feud. ‘Better not,’ she says, smiling through gritted teeth. ‘Better not.'”
Further down the piece, there’s the following paragraph referring to Joan Fontaine:
“The death of their mother in 1975 and the publication of Joan’s poisonous memoir in 1978 estranged them fully, which has proved the best option for Olivia. ‘I got that solution from reading a wonderful little agenda [diary]. Every page had a profound quotation from a saint or a philosopher, and one day I turned a page and it said: “Avoid destructive people.” I thought, “That’s marvellous, and moral, too. If you are faced with the source of an insoluble problem, one that is useless and painful and destructive, well, avoid it.” Avoidance is a non-destructive, benevolent solution.'”
Two years later, she would lose another Oscar. Adding insult to injury, she lost the 1941 Best Actress Oscar to none other than Joan Fontaine in Suspicion. (De Havilland was in the running for Hold Back the Dawn.)
De Havilland would eventually receive two Best Actress Academy Awards: for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949).
When Fontaine came to compliment de Havilland following her To Each His Own victory, de Havilland turned her back on her sister. “I don’t know why she does that when she knows how I feel,” de Havilland later told her press agent, Henry Rogers.
Variety reported that “Joan stood there looking after her with a bewildered expression and then shrugged her shoulders and walked off.”
The above quotes are found in Damien Bona and Mason Wiley’s Inside Oscar.
Louis Jourdan & Joan Fontaine Romance Classic
Louis Jourdan is Turner Classic Movies’ star of the evening, which has just kicked off with a showing of Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 multiple Oscar-winning musical Gigi, co-starring Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier.
But the highlight of the Louis Jourdan evening comes later, with the 7:15 p.m. (Pacific Time) TCM premiere of Max Ophüls’ haunting Letter from an Unknown Woman, a 1948 romantic drama that ranks among not only the greatest movie romances ever, but also among the greatest motion pictures ever made, period.
The only reason I don’t call Letter from an Unknown Woman Max Ophüls’ masterpiece is because Ophüls also directed the sublime Madame De (1952) and the revered Lola Montes (1957). An individual is only allowed one single masterpiece.
Starring Joan Fontaine as the “unknown woman” of the title, Letter from an Unknown Woman is a tale of unrequited love – or passion or madness or obsession or all four (and more) rolled into one. Jourdan doesn’t have all that much to do in the film, except look classy and aloof. He fits the part perfectly.
Now, if Ophüls’ camera work, Howard Koch’s screenplay adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s story, Franz Planer’s superb cinematography, and Daniele Amfitheatrof’s memorable score give the film its mood and ambiance, it’s Joan Fontaine who gives Letter from an Unknown Woman its soul. Fontaine’s performance as a woman gone mad with yearning and desire is nothing short of extraordinary.
Unfortunately, Letter from an Unknown Woman wasn’t a hit at the time of its release. Needless to say, the film wasn’t nominated for a single Academy Award. That’s the Academy’s loss. Don’t miss it tonight.
As an aside: Letter from an Unknown Woman has quite a bit in common in terms of plot, mood, lighting, and atmosphere with Jacques Feyder’s 1931 romantic drama Daybreak, itself based on a novel by Arthur Schnitzler. Turner Classic Movies shows it every now and then; though inferior to Ophüls’ drama, it’s well worth a look thanks to Feyder’s sensitive direction, Merritt B. Gerstad’s cinematography, and Ramon Novarro’s performance in a role akin to that of Louis Jourdan in the 1948 film.
There have also been other film versions of Stefan Zweig’s story. I’ve only seen one other: Only Yesterday, in which John Boles is the man who forgets and Margaret Sullavan the woman who doesn’t. Sullavan is excellent in the role, but this modernized, American-set version lacks the European atmosphere of the remake. Only Yesterday was directed by melodrama expert John M. Stahl in 1933.
While I’m at it, make sure to catch Richard Fleischer’s nostalgic 1952 comedy-drama The Happy Time, which stars Louis Jourdan, Charles Boyer, Bobby Driscoll, and Marsha Hunt, right at the time her film career was ruined by the anti-Red hysteria of the 1950s.
Julie (1956), with Jourdan as a total psycho and Doris Day piloting a plane, is as entertaining as it sounds. (I guess that could go both ways.)
I haven’t watched Dangerous Exile, but considering its cast – Jourdan, Belinda Lee, Keith Michell – it should be worth a look.
Right after that there’s a non-Louis Jourdan movie: Cottage to Let, Anthony Asquith’s 1941 mystery-thriller starring Leslie Banks, John Mills, Alastair Sim, and a young Michael Wilding (later one of Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands). I’m no fan of Leslie Banks, whom I usually find way over the top, but Mills and especially Sim make Cottage to Let a must-see.